Native Skeptic

Native Skeptic
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Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Do Native Americans Celebrate Indepedence Day? Should They?

For most Americans, the Fourth of July is a time for getting together with friends and families. Much like any other holiday, often the meaning behind these celebrations get lost over time. When placed under closer scrutiny, it appears that Independence Day is not a celebration for quite everybody. Many tribes of indigenous people lived on this land for generations before any of the Founding Fathers even thought about writing a Declaration of Independence. For some Native American people, it marks the decline of their own people’s unique culture in America.

In a 2008 Weekend America article, by Krissy Clark titled, 'A Native American Take On Independence', the featured story leads off with an account from a Mandan-Hidatsa tribal member named, Charles Hudson, from the Fort Berthold Reservation located in North Dakota. In the article, he describes a little bit what it was like going to the local public high school when he was younger,

"The length you could wear your hair was heavily regulated. Boys could not wear hair past their collar, and that was obviously a direct violation of their cultural norms…But my goodness, that's nothing compared to the radical oppressions that my mother's generation and her father's generation were going through." - Charles Hudson - Member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe

I cannot help but reflect upon the United States’ history and the Declaration of Independence, in which labels Native people as ”merciless Indian Savages”. After closer review, I realized just how different my perspective of this holiday was, and acknowledged that the majority of most Americans might not share my feelings on this particular holiday. The notion of civilizing the “merciless Indian Savages“ by implementing the ideology of, "Kill the Indian, save the man" still rings a little too close to home for me, which is the theme of a previous post titled, "Diary of a Native Skeptic". The effects left behind on reservations across the country from the federal governments’ attempts to re-educate or “enlighten” Native children by forcing them into churches and boarding schools, in some attempt to deprogram, and strip them of their cultural ways, has left many generations without a sense of personal identity.

Matthew Dennis, a professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, writes on such things as "Colonial America and the early national United States, the history of American Indians, American colonialism, nationalism, and identity". In the following, he provides us with two great quotes from Clark's article, depicting how Native Americans on reservations managed to turn this negative situation into a positive one,

"It is those who have struggled the most, and who've been forced to be the most creative, that have the most to teach us”

and he continues,

“…we can learn a lot about ourselves as a country by looking at how the Fourth is celebrated on reservations like Fort Berthold.” - Matthew Dennis - Professor of History and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon

Around the time of the early 1800's, the residents of American Indian reservations were under some strict federal rules. Performing ceremonial or traditional dances required written permission. However, objections to any kind of communal gatherings that were to take place on the Fourth of July were not specified. So, at first glance, it would appear as if certain tribal communities were just being patriotic with their elaborate celebrations.

In the following quote, Krissy Clark, gives us an example from her article for the Weekend America public radio website, describing just how Native people learned to be creative in their struggles with these limitations on their way of life,

“Some Indian children were even reassigned new birthdays to coincide with the Fourth.” - Krissy Clark - Weekend America

After re-telling this story in the light of this seemingly new unique perspective to my Mother, she recalled something about her grandfather, “They never knew what day was his actual date of birth, but they celebrated it on the Fourth of July.” It is hard for me to imagine that, just less than a few generations ago, this was the way of life for Native people in America. Just to provide a little perspective of American Indian history, it was not until 1924 that Native Americans were named United States citizens.

For many tribes in America, the Fourth of July is a day of celebration with its' own unique cultural flare, often consisting of ceremonies, rodeos, and powwows.

In contrast, as and co-author, Kathleen Crossett also mention in their Ezine article titled "Do Native American Indians Celebrate the 4th of July?", in 1776, one of the first orders that George Washington administered was the destruction of Onondaga villages that were determined to be “in the way of the new country“, so expectantly, not all tribes may celebrate the Fourth with the same amount of shared enthusiasm.

However, historically speaking, Native Americans have the highest record of military service per capita when compared to other any other group of Americans, so Independence Day also provides an excellent opportunity to honor many of those veterans currently serving and the one's from the past, more specifically, the “Navajo code-talkers” that served during World War II.

In the American Forces Press Service news article, written by Rudi Williams titled, "Marine Creates Native American Powwow to Honor Veterans", the co-founder of the Native American Veteran's Pow Wow Committee, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Arnold. points out the significance of these tribal ceremonies and traditions,

"A long time ago, powwows were spiritual gatherings to cerebrate certain community events or to honor somebody who had come back from war. Tribes would hold a dance and people would sing songs that reflected deeds done in a battle or songs carried down from their ancestors when they were fighting, such as in the American Indian wars."

"People came here at their own expense because they want to honor their veterans, just as Indians have honored their warriors throughout history" - Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Arnold - Navajo Tribe

So, after taking a closer look at some of the reasons behind why some people on American reservations celebrate the Fourth of July, the bigger question is not, “Why should Native Americans celebrate Independence Day?”, it's more like…

“Why shouldn’t we?”


  1. Dear Native Skeptic

    A few thoughts from the "outside American culture" i.e. outside the reservation. I am a Caucasian - but I do volunteer work that assists indigenous peoples around the world.

    I think most Americans would be very surprised by the question that you have formulated. I doubt that this line of reasoning has even occurred to most people in regular society. Why is that? Well, very few of us have spent much time visiting the Indian reservations. But we do meet people in regular society who are Native American by background and who are living life in US towns and cities. They seem to be happy with their own choice, and don't have a lot of problem with celebrating Independence Day. In other words - those Native Americans who work in the city and have jobs seem happy with the good things that America is providing them.

    In contrast, your line of inquiry reflects a deep level of separation between people living on the reservation and the rest of American society. So let me ask you - should native culture separate completely from America? Should you become a separate nation, not only culturally but also with an entire system of government of your own? Should you be an entirely separate country within the borders of the United States i.e. much like the country of Luxembourg in Europe. Those are very deep questions. It seems to me that Native Americans really need to address them, and define their answers.

    Here are a few things to contemplate:

    1) Native Americans have been fighting in America's wars since World War I. Fighting and dying alongside all the other Americans who lived here. Was this a waste of time? Was this a waste of their lives?? What do you think?

    2) When you say the Pledge of Allegiance - if indeed you still say it - do you recall the words ... "With liberty and justice for all"? Do you believe those words apply to you personally? Do you believe that with time and effort American society could make those words come true for you, just as for everybody else?

    3) Most working Americans pay taxes - a burden that's getting harder and harder for honest families these days. Some of those taxes do support special programs and educational opportunities that benefit minorities ... incl. Native Americans. Do you think we should stop supporting these programs? I'm not trying to be harsh. But if you aim for a completely separate nation state, it comes with a steep price.

    These are some things to think about. My intention is not to be argumentative at all. The goal is just to be thought provoking.

    all the best,
    Pete, California

  2. Actually, as far as being “happy” with the choice of living life off of the reservation, I have to point out that it really depends on the circumstance of the individual. The keyword that you used is “seem” to be happy. Personally, I always feel a bit like an outsider in the city, even living in a major metropolitan area for over 20+ years. Like many other Native Americans in large cities, I really only feel at home on the reservation. Matter of fact, when I speak about the reservation that I was born on, I always refer to it as “home”. My quibble with American society would be that we are not represented in the appropriate historical context, which coincides with the public’s perception of Native American people. This often leads to many of the cultural misconceptions learned from pop culture. Such as, Native American’s all being rich or well off from casino money.

    As far as the question in the article that I proposed, “Why Do Native Americans Celebrate Independence Day?” the majority of the purpose in the article reflected the reasons why Native Americans “should”, and do, celebrate Independence Day. The title of the post was more of an attention grabber, which I turned around at the end of the post into, “Why shouldn’t Native Americans celebrate Independence Day?”

    As for the state of reservations, in my post “Life on the Rez”, I portrayed a brief glimpse of the structure of tribal lands here in Arizona. Native people are already separate from the rest of America, except for where the United States oversteps its jurisdiction onto tribal lands. For instance, the Navajo nation in Northern Arizona organized and implemented a plan to post a highway sign notifying that “you are now leaving the United States” and “are now entering Navajo Country”. It caused quite the uproar.

    The questions that you proposed have been addressed and we have been re-defining the answers for decades;

    1. I feel the perspective of this was addressed in the article.

    2. Personally, the only part of the Pledge of Allegiance that I don’t participate in saying, is the phrase, “under God.”

    3. The programs that get established by the federal government which support Native American specifically are not the same as those designed to support all ethnic minorities. The stipulations of many treaties proposed by the federal government clearly state that these requirements be provided for the land the Unites States received.

    You are right about these things coming at a “steep price”, which Native Americans living on reservations still suffer the brunt of the burden.

  3. I appreciate you taking the time to consider my questions. But I do want to explain that they were not intended to be argumentative.

    While you have been taking time to look at my questions, I have actually been thinking seriously about the opposite point of view. I went away and did some research. I discovered - to my surprise - that one part of the Lakota people have already told the US Government that they want to separate into a completely different nation. This development did not get much coverage in the mainstream US news, so most Americans are probably completely unaware of it.

    I have thought about it for a while. Suppose some Indian tribes decided to separate and become entirely separate nations. And let's also suppose that the US Congress agreed to let this happen (something which I seriously doubt would occur). How much harm would this do? To be realistic, I don't think it would do much harm at all. If there were a few sovereign Indian states located within the larger borders of the USA, could that really upset things that much? I doubt it. It would be much the same as Europe, where small countries like Luxembourg and Andorra exist within the network of larger countries. Why is this a problem?? Well - it isn't a problem. It could be done.

    There are, however, quite a lot of practical problems with the idea. Let me explain just one problem. Let's suppose that the Lakota's decided to become a completely sovereign state. That means that they have their own laws, and their own police force. Now let's imagine that you, a member of the Nde nation (Apache), happen to drive to Lakota land and while you are there you are speeding in your car. So the Lakota police catch you, and decide to impound your car until you pay a fine. Let's further imagine that for some reason an on-going dispute exists between the Lakota's and the Nde - so the traffic fine they ask for is excessive. You are now angry because they've got your car and you can't get it back. And you've got no way of resolving this easily - because their land is a completely separate nation. They can make whatever rules they want, and enforce them how they want. This is one potential problem with having small independent countries. We would wind up with a mish-mash of many different laws, and no framework to resolve differences of opinion. I'm not picking on the Lakota's - just using them as an example. The Lakota's may be a completely fair nation. But it's not to say that unfair rules could not happen in the future, when you've got many small nations enforcing their own systems of government. And the same thing probably does happen in Europe with the small countries - if they decide to impound someone's car then it might be quite difficult to get it back.

    As for the incident with the Navajo people and their highway sign - I think they should just put it up. So what if some visitors object? Let the Navajo do it. It gives people in the USA a reminder that we are living together with many different points of view.

    Pete, California

  4. Thank you for this post. You brought up some very interesting posts of   native Americans culture!

  5. Interesting examples you posed. Issues regarding laws and policy across boundaries are in constant discussion. Let me give you a real example; on the Navajo Nation we are subject to the "Major Crimes Act" if any of the 7 major crimes are committed the case is sent to a federal court. The problems that arise in these particular situations are a matter of sovereign rights and time. For instance rape cases, the assailant is not picked up immediately and by the time the case makes it to federal court charges are typically dropped for many reasons: if you have to walk around with your assailant on a regular basis you're more than likely experiencing intimidation tactics/ harassment. Also of note, and before anyone jumps on the subject of rape, here are a few stats according to Andrea Smith. 1 in 3 Native women will be raped or sexually assaulted at least once in her lifetime, 86.3% of these cases are committed by non-natives. The major crimes act only applies to Native Americans committing crimes against other Native Americans, and laws get fuzzy when questions of who committed what crime on what land arise (thx to Obama things are looking up).
    Speaking to military enrollment,
    Interesting how we, Natives pat ourselves on the back as being patriotic when the truth of the matter is we probably have the highest number of military enrollees per capita because of the conditions under which our people live. The number of recruiters in our schools far out number the college recruiters as well. Our college attrition rates are at 96%, 96% won't make it through a four year degree program, and the economic conditions are the reservation are ridiculous, our average household income is somewhere around 6,000/yr.
    I live on the rez, and there is no where in the world I would rather be. This is my home, and I'm surrounded by a people who understand me, we share traditions and a culture that is unique, within our traditional philosophies are teachings that I have not found in American society, such as K'e, or our connection with all things and people. I agree with First Nation especially on the third point. Many people are quick to jump at taxes, but they don't know we paid a hefty price for what little we are able to hold dear, now. I would love to see our people become sovereign, and not quasi sovereign or run by a system of governance that was put in place by the federal government "for our benefit".

    As for the subject of Independence Day,for me it is a day of remembrance for all my ancestors who lost their lives so I could be here, and that's everyday.